Editorial - The ebbs and flows of capacity in later life

Changing capacities across the life course

[Image: S. Astrup-Jorgensen - Unsplash]

Many thanks to all of our contributors to this issue, and if you have any items to for the next issue, coming out in September 2019, please send them through. This newsletter is now bi-annual.

There is a lot of discussion about social isolation and loneliness amongst older people, which is a very real and likely under estimated problem, but it is not always linked to associated issues such as mobility. Mobility, or how individuals move within a network, is very much connected to accessibility, health, wellbeing, resourcefulness, transport, and social connection. As we age, our mobility evolves and unsurprisingly this does not occur in a linear manner. There are ebbs and flows in terms of our capacity to move about and access the services and activities that we require or desire. This is the case for everyone, but the ebbs and flows become more pronounced with age. A sprained ankle or bad dose of the flu can incapacitate anyone for a period, but they recover, and mobility is regained. However, loss of muscle mass and strength, or a broken hip are longer term propositions that require more significant adaptations to lifestyle and activities.

Transport has a huge impact on older people but there are also associated infrastructure elements. The first time that this was brought strongly to my attention was when I was conducting a review of the Senior Citizens Centres in a local government area. There were around ten Centres and they varied enormously in terms of the physical building, the setting, the number and frequency of attendance, the demographic and cultural mix of attendees, the management and types of activities. On conducting interviews, I heard that many attendees knew of others who would very much like to attend but could not due to mobility and/or transport issues. Friends of a similar age were often willing to assist but generally did not have the strength to do the lifting or manoeuvring that is often required around someone of limited mobility. Many taxis were, and still are, unwilling to drive short distances, so even if the person could afford a taxi, the difficulty was in finding one. So, getting to and from the Centre was an issue and then, if there were steps, even just a few, or uneven pavement, this was also an obstacle, especially with wheelchairs and walking frames. Even those with no visible mobility issues, liked to have handrails along pathways and stairs to assist with balance and provide a sense of security.

At one very small Centre the members lived in fear that Council would close it down due to their small numbers. For all of them, the Centre was within walking distance of home and was their only opportunity for regular and engaging social contact with others out of the house. The group was small, of diverse cultural backgrounds and over time had become both a family and support group, sharing meals, chatting, playing cards and most importantly looking out for each other.

Nearly all of these Senior Citizen Centres were suffering from dwindling membership and lack of succession planning and some of the underlying reasons came through in the interviews. Many of the younger members said that they’d much prefer to be part of an intergenerational group or at least alongside other groups of varied or mixed ages. They objected to being defined by their chronological age as it seemed irrelevant. The more useful way of defining groups was by common interest and they felt that everyone gained by being in intergenerational groups.

The conclusion to this review was that the existing Senior Citizen’s Centres were providing a very valuable service and opportunity for senior citizens to socialise, participate in community life and belong to one or multiple social groups. However due to ever-dwindling numbers, Council would explore the potential for these Centres to become community hubs rather than single service Centres which had irregular and declining usage.

It is unfortunate that more intergenerational ‘common interest’ initiatives that include older people are not being offered, as that is what most resembles ‘normal life’ and what it would seem that most people want. Some of the many advantages include two-way mentoring amongst the generations, the normalisation of the ageing process, mutual respect and tolerance, social inclusion and community resilience.

One intergenerational activity that is fun, informative and has positive health and wellbeing outcomes is museum and art gallery visitation:


On the education front, the Master of Ageing subjects due to run in Term 3 beginning on the 15th July are:

And for those who’d like to find out more about ageing but are time poor, we run a MOOC ‘Rethinking Ageing, are we prepared to live longer?’ https://www.coursera.org/learn/ageing

[Source: Lena Gan, Course Coordinator Master of Ageing, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne]